Cedar Rapids Gazette – August 7, 1998
By Luke DeKoster
When Dwayne Johnson was a kid, he didn’t dream of becoming the president, a doctor or even a star major-league pitcher.
Now called Rocky Maivia professionally, the 26-year-old has fulfilled his dream: breaking noses and thrilling crowds as a pro wrestler.
Johnson — and his character, The Rock, to whom he refers in the third person — will be in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday as part of the World Wrestling Federation’s (WWF) “Highway to Hell” Tour. The lineup at the Five Seasons Center also will include several other WWF stars, including the Undertaker, and Kane and Owen Hart. On Thursday, the WWF heads to The Mark of the Quad Cities in Davenport.
With Johnson’s father, Rocky Johnson, and his grandfather Peter “High Chief” Maivia also involved in pro wrestling, it was no surprise that the younger Johnson ended up in the big ring.
“I knew one day, somewhere down the line, I would involve myself in professional wrestling, because it was in my blood,” he says.
The legacy ensured the Johnson family’s financial well-being, but it did have a downside.
“The money is phenomenal and fantastic, but at the same time, there’s a lot of demons in this industry,” says Johnson, who says he makes between $500,000 and $800,000 a year. “I hardly ever saw my dad, except when I would travel with him.”
Before Johnson started clotheslining competitors with his bruising forearms, he was body-slamming quarterbacks as a defensive end at the University of Miami.
In 1991, he helped the Hurricanes win a national championship, and as a senior in 1994, he might have started, but for the presence of current Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Warren Sapp.
When an injury slowed his football career, Johnson headed for the WWF.
His education in wrestling began in a tiny ring in Tampa, Fla., with his recently retired dad as his teacher.
“It was six months of really detailed training,” he says. “Falls, psychology, which is the biggest part of professional wrestling, and basic wrestling moves.”
Johnson made his pro-wrestling debut as Rocky Maivia in March 1996 in Corpus Christi, Texas, an appearance that soon led to a contract with the WWF.
By February 1997, he was the Intercontinental Champion, an ascent to the top that turned out to be a little too rushed.
“I was 24 years old then, and I was the youngest Intercontinental Champ in history,” he says. “It went so fast that it kind of hurt me.”
Those less informed about professional wrestling should know that success in this glitzy world isn’t always a matter of pure talent and skill.
Johnson, confirming what cynics always have said, described matches as “a ton of theatrics and a ton of showmanship.”
The WWF has writers who shape the plot of the wrestling season, and the storyline is dictated by what the fans like to see, which is why “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is the current world champ, Johnson says.
As recently as 10 years ago, the ideal wrestler was a “good guy,” an athlete who was nice to the fans but rough on the competition. In 1996, Johnson says, Austin defied that image by habitually raising his middle finger toward the crowd, among other stunts.
“Steve Austin was doing everything despicable and ignorant, and people started liking him,” Johnson says. “Naturally, you’ll see the world title around his waist – it’s only good business.”
With “outlaws” as the popular wrestlers, the baby-faced, honest Rocky Maivia was left in the cold.
“I would come out and smile, and people hated it,” he said.
So he modified his character into arrogant, cocky the Rock, and he was a hit again.
“You also need your quintessential bad guy that everybody will pay to see get beat up, and that’s the Rock,” he says with a laugh. “Then when I don’t lose the Intercontinental Title, it incites them even more.”
He’s proud of his role.
“I’m one of those men you love to hate. The Rock doesn’t kiss babies and help old ladies across the street. The Rock loves it when you boo him,” he says. “Just to incite that much emotion in someone means a lot to me, and to have the ability to do that is extraordinary.”